This month in our conversation about Jewish Spirituality, I want to share some ideas and teachings about the Jewish concept of Community. Especially now at this time of continued isolation and separation from our normal relationships and activities, the topic of community is on my mind.
You know the saying that Eskimos with their many words for snow?
Along those lines, Judaism has several words for community:
Khilla, Edah, Am, Agudah, Asifa and probably a few more I’m not thinking of at the moment.
(Aside – Eskimos and the 50 or 100 words for snow … is a myth! It’s really about 5 words. And more importantly, the respectful term for the native peoples of Alaska, is the word Inuit. So, file that under things you learn on the internet!)
Now back to our topic of Jewish community. We know that being in community is clearly an important part of Jewish life. But why? What is the spiritual value Judaism is teaching us by emphasizing community? Other religious traditions prioritize solitude and personal quests towards God. Think of monks and nuns and other kinds of monastics. Judaism doesn’t have that, for many reasons, but most fundamentally, because Judaism values community and connection.
So what is the message and meaning behind this emphasis on community?
One answer relates to the Hebrew word: Am.
When the Israelites left Egypt and began their journey as God’s people, they could have been called a “religion” or a “tribe” or a messy bunch of former slaves, but instead the Torah refers to them as Am Israel – the “Nation of Israel.”
This language is setting the stage for an inherent connection between all Jewish people. No matter where we live, no matater how exactly we observe and practice, there is a connection between all Jewish people.
Have you ever played Jewish geography with a new acquaintance? With Jewish people, it usually only takes mentioning a camp, or a hometown, or a school, until we find someone in common.
Here’s a time when Jewish community really became clear to me.
In college, I studied Japanese language and lived for a year with a Japanese family in Nagoya Japan. I loved my experience there and within a few months, I really felt at home. My speaking skills got better and better, and people would tell me that on the phone they couldn’t even tell that I was American.
I went to a Japanese school, had Japanese friends, ate Japanese food, listened to Japanese music; for all intents and purposes, I was living as if I was a Japanese person.
But I was never at home. Not because my Japanese community wasn’t welcoming or accepting, but because deep down I knew – maybe more of a feeling than empirical knowledge – but I felt I belonged to another “nation.” And not the nation of the United States, but the Nation of Israel.
Even though I wasn’t religious at the time -I certainty wasn’t keeping kosher or going to synagogue or engaging in Jewish life in anyway – I still felt that I belonged to Am Yisrael.
To me, one reason Judaism emphasizes this value of community is because it helps us as individuals find our identities. One of the strongest human needs is the need to belong, the need to be part of something bigger and feel our presence matters.
That is why Judaism emphasizes community. Because it answers this deep human need to belong and to count.
In the Torah there are many censuses. Times when God and Moses pause to count the Jewish people – why would they do this? Wouldn’t God have the powers to know how many people are in a certain gathering with God’s divine powers? Why the need to actually take a headcount?
Because counting demonstrates love. Rashi, the great French commentator from the 11th century, says exactly this: to show how precious each individual is, God counts the Jewish people often throughout the Torah.
From a Jewish perspective, community conveys a sense of dignity and value to its members. What could be more meaningful?!
There is much more to the Jewish concept of community:
Why do we say certain prayers only in community?
What constitutes a community – does a Zoom room count?
What things must be present in a Jewish community?
Can a Jew live somewhere without a synagogue or a school or proper medical care?
Those are all questions our tradition addresses. So I’ll see you next time and we’ll explore a bit more of this central mitzvah to be involved and connected to the Jewish community.